Jewish Heritage in Spain and Portugal

Tomar (SP)


The town was born inside the walls of the Convento de Cristo, constructed under the orders of Gualdim de Pais, the fourth grand master of the Knights Templar in the late 12th century.

Tomar is one of Portugal's historical jewels and more significantly was the last Templar town to be commissioned for construction. It became especially important in the 15th century when it was a center of Portuguese overseas expansion under Henry the Navigator, the Grand Master of the Order of Christ, which had been founded in 1314 after the Templars were supressed.  This new order was very active in Portuguese maritime expeditions, and the cross of the Order of Christ was painted on the sails of the caravels that crossed the seas.   The Catholic missions in the new lands were under the authority of the Tomar clerics until 1514.  

Jewish Tomar

Just after 1492 with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the town increased further with Jewish refugee artisans and traders. The very large Jewish minority energized the city with new trades and skills. Their experience was vital in the success of the new trade routes with Africa.  After the forced conversion of Portuguese Jews in the 16th century, Jews were largely undisturbed as nominal Christians for several decades, until the establishment of a Tribunal of the Inquisition by the initiative of the Catholic clergy in the town.  Hundreds of both Jews and New Christians were arrested, tortured and burned at the stake in autos da , in a frenzy of persecution that peaked around 1550.  With the persecution of its merchants and professionals the town then lost most of its relevance as a trading center. New Christian names among the inhabitants are still very common today.

Tomar has the best preserved mediaeval synagogue in Portugal. It was built in the mid-15th century and has an interesting interior with Gothic vaulting and columns with classic capitals. Since 1939 it houses the small Abraão Zacuto Jewish Museum, with interesting pieces related to Jewish history in Portugal.